WASHINGTON - Is President Clinton really in the same political party as Patricia Schroeder and Robert Torricelli? Listening to the way they lambasted him lately, you wouldn't think so.
Schroeder, Torricelli, and many other Democrats in both houses of Congress have been laying into a number of Clinton's tax proposals, as well as changes he has agreed to make to his tax package. For House members, one of the sorest points is that Senate opposition made Clinton back off of the same energy tax he pressured them into passing.
"I think we've been left hanging out on a plank, and I must say I don't like it," said Schroeder, a representative from Colorado. "We were doing a tap dance on the end of the plank and then it was sawed off underneath us."
New Jersey's Torricelli said Clinton has developed "a credibility problem with Congress that makes it harder for him to ask lawmakers to cast tough votes on major legislation in the future."
It may seem amazing that politicians would talk that way about the leader of their party. Wouldn't two Democrats who have been around a while know better? Haven't they waited 12 years for a member of their party to occupy the White House?
But this is an unusual year. The conventional wisdom is that Clinton's drop in the polls has made his fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill feel free, even eager, to distance themselves from the President and his policies. In order for those legislators to stand with him, the thinking goes, they would have to fear his political clout - and he is perceived to have lost a bit of that over the last couple of months.
That may be true. But there is something much subtler at work as well: Congress' Democratic rank and file is catching its restlessness from its leaders.
In the words of one Capitol Hill observer, who has been around through several administrations, "It is a diminution of the power of the congressional leadership to have to fall in line behind the party's President."
This observer went on to note that none of the party's leadership in either house held their top positions during the Carter administration.
By the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency in 1980. Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, now the Senate majority leader, had been in the Senate for only six months. Rep. Thomas S. Foley. D-Wash., now the House speaker, was a six-term congressman campaigning to be Democratic whip. The House majority leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., was beginning his third term in Congress and was quietly serving on the House Ways and Means Committee.
"You have no one who's in charge of setting the broad congressional agenda who has ever had to work in a role of playing second fiddle to a President of their own party," this source said.
That probably takes some getting used to. For the latter part of the Reagan years and the entire Bush term, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Mitchell, Foley, and the Democratic committee chairmen set their own policy agenda. Even though their legislation often got sidetracked by the veto pen, they still were able to put their own stamp on bills moving through Congress.
Now, however, those leaders and committee chairmen who were once free agents are supposed to be deferring to President Clinton, and they seem to be having trouble making the adjustment.
But loyalty to the President hasn't disappeared completely, and is coming from a seemingly unlikely source: first-term members of the House. The group, led by Rep. Leslie Byrne, D-Va., was outraged when 11 subcommittee chairmen voted against the Clinton package, and demanded that those members be stripped of their chairmanships.
In a meeting of House Democrats June 9, the leadership declined to depose the chairmen, though they agreed to monitor the future voting records of those members.
Part of Clinton's message in the campaign was that having Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of government would stop the gridlock in Washington. But gridlock clearly is alive and well. Unless something changes, Clinton will continue to face tough sledding as his tax proposals lurch toward a final vote in Congress in the coming weeks.